After tomorrow, she would be a married woman. Another man would be the center of her life, another arm would keep her steady. She would be Bobby’s wife from now on; not Sam Cavenaugh’s little girl.
When Dad drew back, there were tears in his eyes, and she knew he’d been thinking the same thing.
“Always,” she whispered.
He nodded in understanding. “Always.”
MEGHANN WISHED TO GOD SHE’D NEVER AGREED TO LET Gina host and plan the rehearsal dinner. Every moment was pure hell.
Are you here by yourself?
Where’s your husband?
You don’t have children? Well. That’s lucky, sometimes I wish I could give mine away. This one was followed by a clearly uncomfortable laugh.
No husband, huh? It must be great to be so independent. This one was always followed by a frown.
Meghann knew that Claire’s friends were trying to make conversation with her; they just didn’t know what to say. How could they? This was a group of women who talked endlessly about their families. Summer camp start-times were a big topic of conversation; also resorts that were “kid friendly” on Lake Chelan and along the Oregon Coast. Meghann had no idea what kid friendly even meant. That they served ketchup with every meal, maybe.
They were trying to include her, especially the Bluesers, but the more they tried to make her a part of the group, the more alienated she felt. She could talk about a lot of things—world politics, the situation in the Mideast, where to get the best deal on designer clothes, real estate markets, and Wall Street. What she couldn’t talk about were family things. Kid things.
Meghann stood at the fireplace in Gina’s beautifully decorated house, sipping her second margarita. This one, like the first, was disappearing much too quickly. There were pods of people everywhere—on the deck, in the living room, sitting at the dining-room table—all talking and laughing among themselves. Across the room, Claire stood at the kitchen bar/counter, eating potato chips and laughing with Gina. As Meghann watched, Bobby came up behind Claire and whispered something in her ear. She immediately turned into his arms. They came together like puzzle pieces, fitting perfectly, and when Claire looked up at Bobby, her face glowed.
There it was, in all its quicksilver glory.
Please, God, she found herself praying for the first time in years, let it be real.
“Okay, everyone,” Gina said, coming into the room. “Now it’s time for the second part of the evening.”
A hush fell. Everyone looked up.
Gina smiled. “Hector is opening the bowling alley just for us! We leave in fifteen minutes.”
Bowling. Rented shoes. Polyester shirts. The division of people into teams.
Meg eased away from the wall. Taking a sip of her cocktail, she realized that she’d finished it. “Damn.”
“We haven’t really met yet. I’m Harold Banner. Karen’s husband.”
Meghann was startled by the man’s presence. She hadn’t heard him approach. “Hello, Harold.”
He was a tall, thin man with bushy black eyebrows and a smile that was just a bit too wide, as if maybe he had too many teeth. “I hear you’re a lawyer.”
“Let me ask you then—”
She tried not to groan.
He barked out a braying laugh. “Just kidding. I’m a doctor. I get the same thing all the time. Everyone I meet mentions a pain somewhere.”
In the ass, maybe. She nodded and looked down into her empty glass again.
“I guess you left your husband at home, huh? Lucky guy. Karen makes me show up at everything.”
“I’m single.” She tried not to grit her teeth, but this was about the tenth time she’d had to reveal that tonight.
“Ah. Footloose and fancy-free. Lucky you. Kids?”
She knew he was just being nice, trying to find some common ground for conversation, but she didn’t care. Tonight had been brutal. One more reminder that she was a woman alone in the world and she’d probably scream. Normally she was proud of her independence, but this small-town crowd made her feel as if she lacked something important. “I’m sorry, Harold. I need to go now.”
“What about bowling?”
“I don’t bowl.” She walked across the living room and came up beside Claire, gently putting her hand on her sister’s shoulder.
Claire turned. She looked so happy right then it took Meghann’s breath away. When she saw Meghann, she laughed. “Let me guess. You’re not a bowler.”
“Oh, I love bowling. Really,” she added at her sister’s skeptical look. “I have my own ball.” She knew immediately that she’d gone too far with that one.
“You do, huh?” Claire leaned against Bobby, who was talking animatedly to Charlotte’s husband.
“Unfortunately, I have a few last-minute details I need to go over for tomorrow. I have to get up early.”
Claire nodded. “I understand, Meg. I really do.”
“I thought I’d call Mama again, too.”
Claire’s happy look faded. “Do you think she’ll show up?”
Meghann wished she could protect Claire from Mama. “I’ll do my best to get her here.”
“Well. Bye. I’ll tell Gina why I’m leaving.”
Fifteen minutes later, Meghann was in her car, speeding down the country road toward Hayden. She had the top down, and the cool night air whipped through her hair.
She tried to forget the rehearsal dinner, get the hurtful memories out of her mind, but she couldn’t do it. Her sister’s well-meaning friends had managed to underscore the emptiness of Meg’s life.
She saw the sign for Mo’s Fireside Tavern and slammed on the brakes.
It was a bad idea to go in, she knew. There was nothing but trouble in there. And yet . . .
She parked on the street and went inside the smoky bar. It was crowded tonight.
Friday. Of course.
Men sat on every barstool, at every table. There were a few women scattered throughout the crowd, but damn few.
She made her way through the place, boldly checking out every man. She got enough smiles to know that she could definitely find one here tonight.
She had toured the whole place and made her way back to the front door when she realized why she was really here.
“Joe,” she said softly, surprised. She honestly hadn’t known that she wanted him.
That wasn’t good.
She left the bar. Out on the street, she took a deep breath of sweet mountain air. She never slept with a man twice. Or rarely, anyway. As her friend Elizabeth had once pointed out, Meghann would sometimes make a New Year’s resolution to quit screwing college kids, and then date men without hair for a week or two, but that was pretty much the extent of her so-called dating life.
The amazing thing was, she didn’t want to cull through the possibilities in the bar and bring home a stranger.
She wanted . . .
She stood at her car, looking down the street at his small cabin. Light glowed from the windows.
“No,” she said aloud. She shouldn’t do it, but she was walking anyway, crossing the street, and entering his yard, which smelled of honeysuckle and jasmine. At the door, she paused, wondering what in the hell she was doing.
Then she knocked. There was a long silence. No one answered.
She twisted the knob and went inside. The cabin was dark and quiet. A single lamp glowed with soft light, and a fire crackled in the hearth.
“Joe?” Cautiously, she stepped forward.
A shiver crept along her spine. She sensed that he was here, close by, burrowed into the darkness like a wounded animal, watching her.
She was being ridiculous. He simply wasn’t home. And she shouldn’t be here.
She started to turn for the door when she saw the photographs. They were everywhere—on the coffee table, the end tables, the windowsills, the mantel.
Frowning, she walked from place to place looking at the pictures. They were all of the same woman, a lovely blond with a Grace Kelly kind of elegance. There was something familiar about her. Meghann picked one up, smoothed her finger across the cheap Plexiglas frame. In this photograph, the woman was clearly trying to make pie dough from scratch. There was flour everywhere. She wore an apron that read: Kiss the Cook. Her smile was infectious. Meghann couldn’t help smiling along with her.
“Do you always break into other people’s homes and paw through their things?”
Meghann jumped back. Her fingers went numb—just for a second, but it was time enough. The picture crashed to the floor. She turned around, looking for him. “Joe? It’s me, Meghann.”
“I know it’s you.”
He was slumped in the corner of the room, with one leg bent and the other stretched out. Firelight illuminated his silvery hair and half of his face. She didn’t know if it was the dim lighting, but she noticed the lines etched around his eyes. Sadness clung to him, made her wonder if he’d been crying.
“I shouldn’t have come in. Or come here, for that matter,” she said, uncomfortably. “I’m sorry.” She turned and headed for the door.
“Have a drink with me.”
She released a breath, realizing just then how much she’d wanted him to ask her to stay. Slowly, she faced him.
“What can I get you?”
He laughed. It was a dry, rustling sound that bore no resemblance to the real thing. “I’ve got scotch. And scotch.”
She sidled past the coffee table and sat down on the worn leather sofa. “I’ll have a scotch.”
He got up, shuffled across the room. She saw now why he’d been so invisible; he had on worn black jeans and a black T-shirt.
She heard a splash of liquid, then a rattling of ice. As he poured her drink, she looked around the room. All those photographs of the Grace Kelly look-alike made her uncomfortable. These pictures weren’t decoration; they were obsession, nak*d and unashamed. She tried to figure out where she’d seen this woman but couldn’t.
She looked up.
He stood in front of her. The top two buttons of his Levi’s were undone, and the T-shirt was ripped at the collar, revealing a dark patch of chest hair.
“Thank you,” she said.
He took a drink straight from the bottle, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Sure.” He didn’t move away, just stood there, staring down at her. He was unsteady on his feet.
“You’re drunk,” she said, finally getting it.
“Iss June twenty-second.” He smiled, or tried to, but the sadness in his eyes made it impossible.
“Do you have something against the twenty-second?”
His gaze darted to the end table beside her. To the photographs clustered there. He looked quickly back at her. “You were here the other day. You didn’t come in.”
So he’d seen her, standing on the street that afternoon, looking at his house. She couldn’t think of how to answer, so she drank instead.
He sat down beside her.
She twisted around to face him, realizing an instant too late how close they were. She could feel his breath against her lips. She tried to edge away.